A Tale of Two Seeds: Monsanto and the Dicamba Wars

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Earlier this year, biotech corporation Monsanto released its first ever dicamba-resistant strain of seeds.

This wouldn’t be unusual if not for the fact that the use of dicamba on genetically modified crops is illegal in all 50 states. Dicamba is a chemical found in herbicides that disrupts hormonal functions in certain types of plants in order to kill them and is legally sold for controlling lawn weeds. It is known for its ability to drift rapidly after application, as well as its high toxicity to non-modified soybeans.

FeXapan, an herbicide made for genetically modified crops that contain dicamba, is currently under review by the EPA. However, Monsanto released its “Xtend” seeds before the completion of the EPA’s FeXapan review. Naturally, farmers that wanted to increase their yields and profits purchased the Xtend seeds and began illegally applying herbicides that contained dicamba that was not made for widespread use.

The biggest problem with farmers’ use of dicamba on Xtend seeds was not just its illegality, but how it has been affecting neighboring farmers that chose not to buy and use Xtend seeds. Since dicamba is extremely toxic to unmodified versions of soybeans, including Monsanto’s commonly used Roundup Ready varieties, farmers not using Xtend or dicamba have been suffering the consequences of their neighbor’s illegal actions. What was a simple dispute for many farmers over two different types of seeds, has suddenly become a serious, and deadly, matter. On Oct. 27, Mike Wallace was killed after a confrontation regarding his neighbor’s use of the pesticide Dicamba turned violent.

Since the release of Xtend, thousands of acres of soybeans have been destroyed across Arkansas, Tennessee, and Missouri. Though Monsanto warns against the use of dicamba on its website, it does so directly below its description of its newly available dicamba-resistant soybeans.

Further proof that such a dependency was orchestrated is the fact that Monsanto has invested over $1 billion in the production of dicamba, though its use on genetically modified crops is still illegal. If Monsanto truly did intend to create a dependency on a product that required an illegal pesticide, it arguably holds some moral responsibility for the death of Mike Wallace and the economic hardship that other farmers have faced as a result of crop damage from dicamba drift.

Monsanto denies it attempted to orchestrate a dependency, and a spokeswoman for Monsanto claims that they took “extensive steps” to clearly communicate to farmers the illegality of using dicamba on Xtend seeds. Farmers are so desperate for a solution to the weed problem that many have offered to pay dicamba fines up front to state regulators. Additionally, Monsanto’s U.S. release of Xtend was perfectly legal, considering its approval by the USDA last year. Perhaps the responsibility of dicamba drift is more of a bureaucratic failure on behalf of the USDA and the EPA since Xtend was legalized before dicamba was.

Whether or not Monsanto is morally complicit in the dicamba wars is considered unimportant to farmers who are facing the harsh realities of this year’s harvest. Unless the EPA heavily regulates dicamba, or there is a breakthrough in weed-resistance technology, it appears as though the only option moving forward is for farmers to use dicamba, whether legal or not. It will be farmers who follow the law who continue to bear the brunt of the dicamba wars.

This article originally appeared on The Prindle Post, hosted by the Prindle Institute for Ethics” appears as an editor’s note for the articles from The Prindle Post.